Thursday, April 25, 2024

AI-powered tags to lighten load when monitoring animals on farm

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A smart ear tag that uses artificial intelligence to estimate and predict behaviour from the data could be a game-changer for farmers.
The internet-enabled device clips onto a cow’s ear, allowing farmers to continuously monitor the animal’s health, grazing and breeding habits.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

As he sat among the usual crowd at the local bridge club, Tyrel Glass never could have guessed that a game of cards would lead to an innovative solution for dairy farmers. Chatting between games, he uncovered a problem he knew he could help solve and he teamed up with fellow Massey University engineering graduate Baden Parr to turn their unique idea into a reality. And that was the birth of ProTag.

“The initial problem was related to GPS-tracking animals, but we got involved with Sprout Agritech and discovered there was a lot of competition in that space,” says ProTag co-founder Parr.

“But when we looked deeper we found that although there are a lot of technologies available to farmers, the shortcomings were that farmers need to do a lot of the heavy lifting and analysing the data themselves.”

They refined their target innovation to ensure it would truly add value on farm.

“With ProTag we are putting the behaviour signals with the context of where the animal is on the farm with what it’s doing at that moment and using AI modelling to truly understand what could be happening,” Parr says.

“For example, knowing that the animal has just entered fresh pasture has helped us distil the behaviour that we see and instead of suggesting that something’s wrong with the animal because it’s acting very differently than it did yesterday, we can say actually that animal is on fresh pasture, we know what sort of pasture it is.

“And then say actually nothing is wrong or actually maybe something is wrong but we have that bigger picture information to understand truly.”

He says other technologies do not include that level of context and the solution is to teach farmers to recognise the clues in the data themselves.

The innovation is in an ear tag, chosen because they are small, lightweight and cheap but they did need to ensure it had enough power without big batteries or large solar panels. So by incorporating specific technology, they have been able to keep continuous location updates that enable the insights.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the true enabler of the technology. The tags themselves use AI models that are trained to estimate and predict behaviour from the sensor data, which goes into the cloud. And from there they use AI to filter and develop the insights at a herd level as well as the individual cow. Their ultimate goal is to be able to feed that back to provide insight and value to the farmer.

“Our system works in a self-learning fashion to an extent. As we get more and more information from the farms, the models get better and better and there are always continuous updates and the models will constantly evolve.”

They also plan to connect to other systems to use the data to help farmers with their evolving needs, which could be automating compliance reporting to milk processors about where animals are spending their time, understanding pasture efficiency or sharing performance insights with fertiliser companies or advisers. They will partner with other technology companies and amalgamate farm data streams.

“We are very open to collaboration. We believe we’re all better together and the common goal is driving efficiency and improvement for the dairy sector.”

ProTag has been through the Sprout Agritech accelerator programme and successfully secured several investors to get up and running. Their primary focus is New Zealand dairy farms but they can see there will be other opportunities and have been exploring potential in other markets. 

They have a number of trial farms around Waikato and have been working with the Lincoln University Dairy Farm to trial and develop the tags. They are hoping to have them commercially available in 18 months.

“Developing the concept and understanding the value of layering farm and animal information is really exciting, it’s going to be a great tool to support farmers.”

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